Football Commentary: Cantona content to be United catalyst

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The Independent Online
DURING a post-match interview which was banal, even by television's modest standards, it was put to Dean Saunders on Saturday that Aston Villa's victory at Liverpool said much for their championship credentials. Really? Where had our man with the mike been these last 12 months? The world and his wife, wobbly Wimbledon included, are winning at Anfield these days.

Creditable result though Villa's was, the more compelling performance came from Manchester United, who maintained their surge with an impressive 4-1 demolition of Tottenham's new, improved defence.

United in general, and Eric Cantona in particular, have hit their stride in a big way, and have the look of champions in waiting. After the shattering disappointment of last season, no one at Old Trafford dares speak the word title, but they are going to take some stopping.

The recruitment of the maverick Cantona, which raised a few eyebrows at the time, is beginning to look inspired. The final element in the equation, perhaps.

Before his arrival, United were becalmed, with just four goals in nine games. Since his introduction they have rattled in 16 in six, the Frenchman scoring in each of the last four League matches. Some catalyst.

In a footballing city with an insatiable appetite for characters and heroes, he is a cult figure already. Old Trafford is awash with Cantona merchandise, from scarves and T-shirts to plates and beer-mats.

The old-timers were out in force on Saturday, lured back by a fixture which has a rich tradition, but also by Ooh-Aah's je ne sais quoi. Brennan, Crerand, Charlton and Law were all in attendance, not to mention the ubiquitous George Best, who endorses Cantona as a kindred spirit and describes him as the most significant of all Alex Ferguson's many signings.

For his part, the Gallic charmer said he was 'honoured' to be called the best by someone who had been just that - by nature as well as name.

Speaking through an interpreter, Cantona said he had found it easy to adapt to United's composed, passing game which was more to his liking than Leeds' direct, long-ball style.

'I'm content here, I'm playing well and I hope people are content with me.' They are, Eric, and how. Ferguson could hardly be more so. 'Cantona has done very well,' the manager said. 'He has brought something extra which we haven't had in my time here. He is capable of creating all manner of things with his vision and touch on the ball.

'A lot of players come here and find it all too much for them, but he has lifted everyone around him.'

Footloose he may be, having seen more clubs than Best in his drinking days, but the Nimes nomad is also something of a talisman. Teams tend to win things when Cantona is around, which strengthens the suspicion that United are on the threshold again, and may at last be about to cross it.

After a stuttering start, they outclassed Spurs and might easily have had six. From the moment you-know-who opened the scoring, after 40 minutes, it was merely a question of how many, with some good saves needed from Erik Thorstvedt to prevent a beating from becoming a rout.

All the goals were good ones, although Tottenham will be deeply unhappy about the first, which came at a time when they were playing quite well, and should certainly have been prevented.

Cantona had scored a hat-trick against them for Leeds at the start of the season, and forewarned should have been forearmed. Instead, he was left free to beat Thorstvedt with a long, looping header at the far post after Dennis Irwin's left-wing cross had caught the goalkeeper and Neil Ruddock in no man's land.

Spurs have tightened up at the back this season, but old habits die hard, and some of their marking and tracking here was woeful. In fairness, United's speed of thought and movement, and the breadth of an attack serviced by two wingers would have stretched, and broken, better defences than theirs.

Typical were the second and fourth goals, which started and finished a six-minute purple patch in which United scored three. The first of these saw Cantona set up Irwin's fulminating finish with a delightful lofted through pass. The last had the other full-back, Paul Parker, shooting in at close range after playing an incisive one-two off Brian McClair.

Not that it was all intricate, tricky-dicky stuff. Sandwiched between the rapier thrusts was a real claymore blow from McClair, who beat Thorstvedt at his right-hand post from 25 yards.

Home and dry with a 4-0 lead, United eased up, withdrawing Paul Ince and Ryan Giggs, and finishing with 10 men when Cantona hobbled off three minutes from the end with a minor hamstring injury which will prevent him from training until the middle of the week.

Spurs profited from their numerical advantage when young Nick Barmby further fuelled his burgeoning reputation by heading in Paul Allen's short cross, but by that late stage one goal was an irrelevance.

Terry Venables missed the match, holidaying in the Caribbean. Not a bad judge, old Tel. It was United's day - and Cantona's. The title? 'I'm much too superstitious to talk about that, but I do have high hopes,' he said.

He was not inclined to comment on his own virtuosity, preferring to concentrate on the team's all-round strength. 'If I wanted to draw attention to myself I would have chosen to play singles tennis, or maybe picked a nice young lady to play mixed doubles with,' he said.

Poor Spurs would gladly buy him the racket.

Goals: Cantona (40) 1-0; Irwin (52) 2-0; McClair (54) 3-0; Parker (57) 4-0; Barmby (88) 4-1.

Manchester United: Schmeichel; Parker, Irwin, Bruce, Sharpe, Pallister, Cantona, Ince (Phelan, 67), McClair, Hughes, Giggs (Kanchelskis, 74). Substitute not used: Sealey (gk).

Tottenham Hotspur: Thorstvedt; Austin (Bergsson, 81), Edinburgh, Samways, Mabbutt, Ruddock, Howells, Barmby, Nayim (Anderton, 71), Sheringham, Allen, Substitute not used: Walker (gk).

Referee: M Peck (Kendal).

(Photograph omitted)